Gina Prince-Bythewood directs intimate, romantic, independent films like Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights. So she’s not necessarily who you’d expect to helm the latest action-packed comic-book come to life.
But the filmmaker says she was committed to making her latest film — Netflix’s The Old Guard — feel as grounded as her smaller films. Charlize Theron plays Andy; her team of mercenaries has lived for centuries and fought in countless battles, but faced with a new mission and a new, reluctant addition named Nile (Kiki Layne), Andy’s will to fight has waned.
“The Old Guard are a group of warriors … who have been tasked with protecting humanity,” Prince-Bythewood explains. “But they are at a point where they don’t see their work influencing the world at all and they feel like they’ve lost their purpose.”
In directing The Old Guard, Prince-Bythewood becomes the first black woman to direct a big budget superhero movie. “I hate the fact that I’m the first — in 2020 that we’re still having firsts,” she says. And she vows that she will use this opportunity to help other Black filmmakers succeed in Hollywood.
“It’s an absolute responsibility for me and the others who have slipped through to keep that door propped open,” she says.
On Andy as a conflicted leader and a reluctant hero
I love Andy because I understand Andy. [She] is this woman who has been fighting in the good fight without really knowing why. … She’s compelled to do good, but she is at a point in her life where she is tired and … she does not see this endless amount of killing she has to do to protect humanity … she’s not seeing the results.
She’s just seeing the world getting worse and worse and hurting itself on a loop. And she’s done. She just wants it over. And I really connected with her being a woman who is searching for a purpose, who has lost her purpose and needs a reason to keep going. …
There was absolutely a time in my life where I was searching for my purpose. Why am I here? Should I even be here? What impact could I possibly have on the world? … I was lost. … I think every project that I’ve done is some sort of therapy, whether I’ve written it or directed it. …
Also, the fact that she is innately a warrior and she always has been — I love that about her. I love the normalcy of that, that she’s a woman and she’s a warrior. It’s a narrative that we don’t often get to see, but I certainly see in my life and in the women I grew up with.
On death being treated seriously in the film
The fact that they’re conflicted about killing … is an important thing to really move into the genre given the state of the world — given really how we, as Americans, think about death and killing and guns, which is absolutely tied to Hollywood and what we put out. … I wanted it to feel real and I wanted it to have some consequence. …
[Andy] kills 17 people in the church. I didn’t want there to be some funny quip at the end of that. … I’m unapologetic about the violence, but I never wanted it to feel like a celebration of violence.
On being a female director of a big budget action film
I love the genre. I see all of them. I have two boys who love the genre as well. And it’s something we do as a family, but the way that Hollywood has worked for so long, I didn’t know that I would ever get the opportunity. But in the last couple of years, once [director] Patty Jenkins rocked Wonder Woman, that absolutely cracked the door open and some of us who have been eager to get into this space, you know, saw an opportunity. So I started making choices and taking meetings that would lead me to this place. …
Women were not getting these opportunities at all. It wasn’t even a question. We weren’t on the lists. We were not even getting meetings. It was dire. Absolutely. There’s just a narrative in Hollywood … that women don’t like action, that women can’t direct action and that we didn’t have a desire to do action. And, you know, all of that was false. But it was strong and it was real. And it’s kept us locked out for a great many years.
On advice she got from Rian Johnson, who directed Star Wars: The Last Jedi, about how to approach a big budget film
He said it doesn’t matter how much money you have to make the film: You have to start by telling a good story first. And that completely grounded me and helped me because I felt like: OK. I feel like I know how to do that. What the extra money gives you is more time and more toys. … I think the hardest thing is, the more money you have, the more voices are in the mix. And, you know, any movie, you’re fighting for your vision the entire time. Here, you know, you have to fight a little bit more because there’s more people.
On the romance between two male characters Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli)
It was really very cool to see how passionate they were about their characters, how passionate they were about being able to tell the story. … What those brilliant actors brought was a realness and a groundedness. I think the stronger way for me to play it was, let’s not be flashy with it. Let’s just be real with it. There’s a normalcy to it in the way that Andy and Nile are our warriors and bringing a normalcy to that. It was the same with Joe and Nicky — that they belonged in this world, they’re warriors and they’re two men who have loved each other for millennia.
On whether she sees this moment as a time of meaningful change for Black filmmakers
This industry, as liberal as it is on the surface, has kept us out, locked out for such a long time. … Hollywood is absolutely complicit … in both the images of Black people that they’ve put out for decades in both television and film, but also the lack of images that they put out — the invisibility of Black women in television and film so that the world does not get a chance to see our humanity, see the whole breadth of our humanity as a people. …
These films that I focus on — which most of time have Black women at their center — those are the hardest films to get made. So I have been in a sustained fight absolutely for 20, 25 years to to have the ability to tell those type of stories. … But it’s also … very rarely [do] you see our names on films that don’t have predominately Black actors, as if there’s an assumption that we can’t do everything. …
So I think and hope that that will absolutely change. Foremost, that we are allowed to tell our own stories, and … we’re allowed to tell them in our voice, with our authenticity, and our truth, as opposed to most of America and the world seeing our lives through someone else’s lens – which, when you don’t do your homework, and you’re just, you know, vacationing with us for a moment, it’s absolutely harmful and we’ve seen that.
On opening the door for other Black filmmakers
I absolutely hope that me being able to do it and having success … will keep that door open and give somebody else an opportunity, because I know that there are a lot of Black filmmakers wanting this opportunity.
I’m optimistic in that, in this last couple weeks, I have had conversations with those in power who have called me asking for help, advice: What do we do? What do you think about this? When we do this what does that say? And they have not been defensive for the first time. They’ve been open and listening and embracing. …
I know of a company that had reached out to me that have decided to change their casting — the leads of their films — to people of color, given what’s going on. … That is concrete. And that that excited me. That gives me hope.
Marc Rivers and Phil Harrell produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the web.